I wasn’t always a romance reader. I became one by happy accident. On a family vacation in Florida, I decided I needed a book. I hadn’t read much fiction in a years, and dammit, I was going to buy and read one of those pulpy books on the rack in the drug store. The kind of book you sink into like a cushy chaise lounge, not looking up until you’re a hundred pages in. The kind of book you don’t have to work hard to enjoy, that wears its pleasures on its sleeve.
The book I grabbed was J. R. Ward’s Lover Revealed, the fourth book in her Black Dagger Brotherhood paranormal romance series about a gang of leather and shitkicker-wearing vampire bros and the ladies who love them. My mind and my preconceived notions about the genre were blown. A vampire as a romance novel hero? A book that follows the relationship into the bedroom but slams the door on purple prose? A romance series with a large cast of characters and a compelling alternate world? I clearly had no idea what romance novels were all about, but after Lover Revealed, I was determined to find out.
I read the rest of the series, found a bunch of romance book blogs, and my bank account has never recovered. Even though I’ve probably read several hundred romance novels by now, I’ll never catch up to my online friends who started by stealing their moms’ Georgette Heyers, Betty Neels, Kathleen Woodiwisses, and Elizabeth Lowells when they were kids. I’m so grateful for my online reader friends.
Why? Because all of my favorite people hate my favorite books. I hid my love for romance at first, but now my coworkers, friends, and family all know what I read. They’re too considerate — or value their lives and limbs too much — to make fun of romance in front of me, but they still don’t understand why I like it, and they still won’t give it a try. As a fan, I agree that sometimes the titles, covers, and blurbs are … erm … a bit goofy. But I’m willing, at least sometimes, to openmindedly read their favorites. They think they already know what a romance novel is without having read one. I was like that once, and I shudder to think how many favorite books I’d have missed if I still believed it today.
I’ll start with an obvious challenge: my two teenage sons. Even though I actually think the right romance novel would be a much better way for them to learn about women and sexuality than some of the manga and video games they currently enjoy, I’ve had no luck convincing them to try one. “Romance novels are for suckahs” says my youngest. (He also says this, by the way, about meat, math homework, and bathing.)
Then there’s my husband. I think a list of his favorite authors will suffice to explain the problem: J. R. R. Tolkien, Graham Greene, Nick Hornby, George R. R. Martin, C. S. Forester, and J. M. Coetzee. Oh, and he’ll read any biography of David Bowie, Bob Dylan, or Peter Gabriel. Nowhere in our relationship are we so traditionally gendered as in our reading choices.
When I last asked him to try a romance novel, he replied, “Actually, I just bought Redeployment. I thought we could take turns reading it aloud to each other.” Of course. Because a harrowing account of the Iraq War scratches the same reading itch that Say Yes to the Marquess does.
I was raised by an avid reader: my mom. But the books I stole from her in my childhood were authored by the likes of The Boston Women’s Health Book Collective, Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem. Classics, historical fiction, and explorer narratives are her jams today. Trying to play on the history angle, I once got her to try Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander. Her verdict? “I was hoping for a heroine who was going to get through her adventure without some ridiculous Scottish superman.” Strike four.
My mother-in-law is also a great reader. She gravitates to mainstream commercial fiction, and she’s got the membership in three book clubs, including a Hadassah book club and one she started in her retirement village, to prove it. She’ll talk my ear off on the phone about books like The Poisonwood Bible, Water for Elephants, and Orphan Train, but when I recommend a romance novel she suddenly has to get a kugel out of the oven.
I thought I struck gold when I made a friend a couple of years ago who loved, loved, loved Fifty Shades of Grey. I didn’t love it myself but I thought, “I can work with this.” Turns out, I couldn’t. When she said she liked books like Fifty Shades of Grey, she meant exactly two books: Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed. I have, needless to say, a date with her at the local cineplex on February 14th. But I’m still flying solo in my search for a local romance reading pal.
In desperation, I have even let my students know about my love for the romance genre. And by “let them know about” I mean “make them read one for class.” In my defense, who doesn’t love Jennifer Crusie’s Bet Me? Sadly, compulsion doesn’t create fans, especially among philosophy majors who have been reading mostly Kant and Merleau-Ponty. But I’m grateful to the students who have approached me to offer their favorite fiction recommendations for next time. And hey, at least if I ever do that Camus/Pynchon/Foster Wallace seminar, I know I’ll have enough warm bodies in the room to please the dean.
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